Thursday, August 16, 2012

Robin's Lament: the Semiotic Limits of a Little Brother

Yesterday, my youngest son reached his second birthday. In his honor, I’m following up Holy Semiosis, Batman! with this brief addition.  Really though, the real reason i'm writing this post  is that once I started thinking in terms of interpretation and semiosis, I couldn’t stop.

In the previous post, I examined the tangle of semiotic links that made up my oldest son’s interpretation of a specific shadow cast by a toy and his entry into a much larger symbolic world. Continuing with the Batman metaphor, in many ways, my younger son plays the Robin to my older’s Batman. At the moment, the younger is the constant sidekick to the older and, while this Robin tries hard, he isn’t quite as capable as the primary hero. One of the manifestations of these shortcomings is in the semiotic capabilities of my little Robin.

I won’t recap Charles Sanders Peirce in this post, I’ll just move on to my younger son’s specific interpretations. One of the televisions shows that my children enjoy includes a grandfatherly dragon named Quetzal. When Robin heard this, he immediately looked to my wife and requested a pretzel. In this case, his interpretation was iconic--the two words (Quetzal and Pretzel) have a formal resemblance to one another--and indexical--he thought the utterance of the word was message about a particular snack food’s availability. I’m not sure yet if he’s making any symbolic linkages of “pretzels as a category” that can be understood and combined with other categories, but that may have been built into his interpretation as well. However, a larger, interconnected symbolic system wasn’t as obvious as it was with my four year old Batman that I described in the previous post.

A bit later, little Robin popped over my shoulder while I was surfing the web and
viewing the image to the right. While jokes and cartoons such as this one require some serious interpretative heavy lifting and meaning making, his only verbal response was simply
an excited exclamation of “baby!” Again, he made an iconic connection between the cartoon and other infant humans and the indexical one to the phonetics of the word. The one-to-one relationship between word and thing (or signifier and signified) was what he wanted to demonstrate with his statement.

Robin’s response was noticeable primarily with how it contrasts with how I believe Batman would have behaved. If my older son had seen the cartoon, I would have immediately been peppered with “who’s that baby looking at,” “does he want milk?”, “does that guy have a mask on?”, and so on and so on and so on.... He's not aware of the historical/political/economic (all of these being understood symbolically by those with more honed interpretive skills) context of financial relationships between poor and wealth nations, but he's primed to look for a bigger picture.

Batman’s always looking for the linkages between the images and words and how they articulate with other ideas and concepts in his world. He’s not nearly as focused with the connection to this specific baby, but how the image is interconnected to others into a symbolic system. In this, I see my small Batman as going through the process of moving well beyond specific indexical associations to the symbolic ones.

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